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“I have the temperament of a harlot": on the life of Steven Runciman

Minoo Dinshaw’s Outlandish Knight revels in the life of an untypical historian.

In the mid-1970s, when Steven Runciman was in his own eighth decade, he became a frequent house guest of the archaeologist (and husband of Agatha Christie) Max Mallowan. Like all who met him, the Mallowans were impressed by this charming and intellectually brilliant man, who was one of the best-known historians in the country. But one evening Mallowan confided to a friend that he had been shocked by his last conversation with Runciman, who told him “that he felt his life had been a failure because of his gayness”. Mallowan was dismayed not only because such soul-baring was startlingly out of character. As the friend later said, “I remember Max saying with huge indignation how tragic and wrong it was that Steven should feel this way.”

Tragic and wrong indeed. People differ in how they measure their own success or failure, but by almost any standards Runciman had led a successful life. His many books on Byzantine and medieval history had been acclaimed by specialists and avidly consumed by general readers; he had received a knighthood and became a Companion of Honour in 1984; he was an honorary whirling dervish and was appointed Grand Orator of the Greek Orthodox Church. At the age of 97 he complained that “the only friend I now have who is older than me is the Queen Mother”; yet one would need to analyse the guest list for his 90th birthday party, to which he invited 400 friends, to be sure of the accuracy of that remark.

The Runcimans were not old nobility – Steven’s father, a Liberal politician, was made a viscount in the 1930s – but they were grand, with family wealth built on industry and shipping, so Steven was born with a fair quantity of silver cutlery in his mouth. He won a scholarship to Eton, where his friends included Eric Blair (George Orwell) and Cyril Connolly, and then won a place at Cambridge at the early age of 17. Effortlessly well connected, and supported by a private income, he spent his student years mingling with Bright Young Things, Bloomsberries, Apostles and assorted littérateurs, many of them gay, and few of them entirely discreet.

This phase of Runciman’s life begins to feel like a generic period piece: the silk dressing gowns, the emerald green parakeet in the college room, the amateur theatricals (Dadie Rylands, a star of the Cambridge stage, was an intimate friend), the portrait by Cecil Beaton, who exclaimed: “I should adore to model him. He’s so huge and ugly and strong with the most fruity voice.” When Runciman became a junior fellow of Trinity, his colleagues included Anthony Blunt, and Guy Burgess was one of his favoured pupils. Here, too, it feels as if we are stepping back into a familiar world – though Runciman never became a communist and was not invited to join the Apostles, apparently because he held middle-of-the-road Liberal views.

Yet, all the while, something much more untypical was happening: this Bright Young Thing was turning himself, gradually, with very little help from his academic superiors, into a world authority on a peculiarly difficult area of European history, learning Russian, Bulgarian, Old Church Slavonic and Armenian in order to do so. The book of his doctoral thesis, about a little-known 10th-century Byzantine emperor, was both scholarly and witty, and remains in print today. That was followed by the first major study in English of the early Bulgarian empire – again, hardly the stuff of cocktail-party conversation, though it did earn him a drink or two, on subsequent visits to Sofia, with Tsar Boris III.

In 1937, when Runciman was 34, a large inheritance from his grandfather enabled him to resign his Cambridge fellowship and become an independent scholar. But other duties soon intervened: the Second World War sent him back to Sofia, where he was given, on Guy Burgess’s recommendation, the job of press attaché to the British Legation. After the legation’s expulsion from Bulgaria he spent the rest of the war in Cairo, Jerusalem, Turkey and Syria; two years followed at the British Council in Athens. The roll-call of his friends from this period ticks many expected boxes, from Freya Stark to Patrick Leigh Fermor.

Freed at last of formal duties in 1947, he spent the next 53 years doing what he enjoyed: writing, lecturing, travelling, hobnobbing with royalty and Hollywood stars, and serving on many great-and-good committees. Until 1966, he was also a laird of the Hebridean island of Eigg. His great History of the Crusades (1951-54) was followed by ten other book-length studies, including one on the Malaysian state of Sarawak; and if he never became a household name, in the style of Kenneth Clark or A J P Taylor, he was about as famous as a historian can be, in the modern age, without appearing on television.

Runciman was reluctant to be biographised, though not because he thought his own life was without interest: he had a rich stock of anecdotes, some of them quite self-regarding, and was happy to publish many of them in his 1991 book of memoirs, A Traveller’s Alphabet. The reluctance stemmed from his fear that younger biographers would, as he put it, be “insensitive to the atmosphere of the past and unaware of that transient element, its humour”.

He should not have worried. Minoo Dinshaw, who is too young to have known him personally, has performed an astonishing feat of empathy as well as research. Outlandish Knight – the title is from a ballad – is based on reams of private correspondence, interviews and unpublished memoirs, in addition to the obvious printed sources (as well as many unobvious ones relating to people and events from Northumberland to Istanbul to Thailand). With a less talented author, the result might have been a Sargasso Sea of information. But what keeps the reader’s interest on every page is, precisely, this biographer’s sensitivity to atmosphere and his humorous awareness.

Minor characters are conjured up with delicious brevity. Cyril Connolly’s father was “a retired officer, chronic drinker and expert in the classification of snails”. The poet Elinor Wylie was “tall and of avian, fragile thinness, with luminous white skin”. George Cukor, the film director, was “physically unattractive, especially to himself; wounded, charming”. Of the marriage of the homosexual 2nd Baron Faringdon, the Labour peer who once began a speech to the upper house “My dears” instead of “My Lords”, Dinshaw states concisely: “A sailor attended the wedding night.”

Admittedly, the book has the weaknesses of its own strengths. In places, the finely crafted prose can become a distraction, as each well-chosen adjective is recalibrated by an even better-chosen adverb. And Dinshaw’s immersion in Runciman’s published works is such that he often writes as if the reader already knew them, commenting shrewdly on matters of style and technique but forgetting to supply elementary facts. Yet the strengths predominate – near-omniscient thoroughness, gentle humour, psychological precision.

This is not at all an uncritical biography. Dinshaw notes Runciman’s less appealing qualities: vanity, snobbery, occasional feline cruelty (there is a wince-making episode involving the humiliation of an earnest young American academic) and, where his elder brother’s ill-fated marriage to Rosamond Lehmann was concerned, “envy, indiscretion and mischief-making”. On the positive side, there was a golden vein of generosity in his character, and keen sympathy for outsiders and underdogs. But Dinshaw strikes a keynote when he refers to “Steven’s long-cultivated facility for civilian adaptability, self-preservation and camouflage”.

Which brings us back to the question of “gayness”. It is only on page 515 that we learn for the first time that Runciman had “a long career of active sexuality”. Up to that point, the book makes only brief suggestions of Runciman having had physical relationships with a few friends, mostly in his early adulthood; but decades have passed without the appearance of anyone who could be called, in the full sense, a lover. And even Dinshaw’s exhaustive researches cannot find one. What he has discovered is a few retrospective comments, late in life, boasting of innumerable casual conquests. As Runciman told a friend: “I have the temperament of a harlot, and so am free of emotional complications.”

In the one judgement that seems off-key in his biography, Dinshaw writes that the reason why Runciman played such a delicate game of sexual semi-concealment was that he believed homosexuality was “an inarguable offence against God”. There is no other evidence of any such hang-up. Surely, it is simpler to suppose that if he had formed a deep relationship with anyone he might have cast ambivalence aside; but, for a man of his generation, dependence on a succession of casual pick-ups would not have been something to celebrate, except with the closest, most like-minded friends.

So, even that mournful confession of “failure” was untruthful. Runciman certainly had never tried to lead a heterosexual life, but neither had he ever gone looking for a long-term gay lover and soulmate. Here is a man who, in his private life, as in his historical work and his public achievements, had done exactly what he wanted.

Noel Malcolm’s most recent book is “Agents of Empire: Knights, Corsairs, Jesuits and Spies in the 16th-Century Mediterranean World” (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories

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How power shifted dramatically in this week’s Game of Thrones

The best-laid plans of Mothers and men often go awry.

Last week’s Game of Thrones was absolutely full of maps. It had more maps than a Paper Towns/Moonrise Kingdom crossover. More maps than an Ordnance Survey walking tour of a cartographer’s convention. More maps than your average week on CityMetric.

So imagine the cheers of delight when this week’s episode, “Stormborn”, opened with – yes, a map! Enter Daenerys, casting her eyes over her carved table map (Ikea’s Västeross range, I believe), deciding whether to take King’s Landing and the iron throne from Cersei or a different path. After some sassy debates with Varys over loyalty, more members of her court enter to point angrily at different grooves in the table as Dany and Tyrion move their minature armies around the board.

In fact, this whole episode had a sense of model parts slotting pleasingly into place. Melisandre finally moved down the board from Winterfell to Dragonstone to initiate the series’ most inevitable meeting, between The King of the North and the Mother of Dragons. Jon is hot on her heels. Arya crossed paths with old friends Hot Pie and Nymeria, and the right word spoken at the right time saw her readjust her course to at last head home to the North. Tyrion seamlessly anticipated a move from Cersei and changed Dany’s tack accordingly. There was less exposition than last week, but the episode was starting to feel like an elegant opening to a long game of chess.

All this made the episode’s action-filled denouement all the more shocking. As Yara, Theon and Ellaria dutifully took their place in Dany’s carefully mapped out plans, they were ambushed by their mad uncle Euron (a character increasingly resembling Blackbeard-as-played-by-Jared-Leto). We should have known: just minutes before, Yara and Ellaria started to get it on, and as TV law dictates, things can never end well for lesbians. As the Sand Snakes were mown down one by one, Euron captured Yara and dared poor Theon to try to save her. As Theon stared at Yara’s desperate face and tried to build up the courage to save her, we saw the old ghost of Reek quiver across his face, and he threw himself overboard. It’s an interesting decision from a show that has recently so enjoyed showing its most abused characters (particularly women) delight in showy, violent acts of revenge. Theon reminds us that the sad reality of trauma is that it can make people behave in ways that are not brave, or redemptive, or even kind.

So Euron’s surprise attack on the rest of the Greyjoy fleet essentially knocked all the pieces off the board, to remind us that the best-laid plans of Mothers and men often go awry. Even when you’ve laid them on a map.

But now for the real question. Who WAS the baddest bitch of this week’s Game of Thrones?

Bad bitch points are awarded as follows:

  • Varys delivering an extremely sassy speech about serving the people. +19.
  • Missandei correcting Dany’s High Valerian was Extremely Bold, and I, for one, applaud her. +7.
  • The prophecy that hinges on a gender-based misinterpretation of the word “man” or “prince” has been old since Macbeth, but we will give Dany, like, two points for her “I am not a prince” chat purely out of feminist obligation. +2.
  • Cersei having to resort to racist rhetoric to try and persuade her own soldiers to fight for her. This is a weak look, Cersei. -13.
  • Samwell just casually chatting back to his Maester on ancient medicine even though he’s been there for like, a week, and has read a total of one (1) book on greyscale. +5. He seems pretty wrong, but we’re giving points for sheer audacity.
  • Cersei thinking she can destroy Dany’s dragon army with one (1) big crossbow. -15. Harold, they’re dragons.
  • “I’ve known a great many clever men. I’ve outlived them all. You know why? I ignored them.” Olenna is the queen of my LIFE. +71 for this one (1) comment.
  • Grey Worm taking a risk and being (literally) naked around someone he loves. +33. He’s cool with rabid dogs, dizzying heights and tumultuous oceans, but clearly this was really scary for him. It’s important and good to be vulnerable!! All the pats on the back for Grey Worm. He really did that.
  • Sam just fully going for it and chopping off all of Jorah’s skin (even though he literally… just read a book that said dragonglass can cure greyscale??). +14. What is this bold motherfucker doing.
  • Jorah letting him. +11.
  • “You’ve been making pies?” “One or two.” Blatant fan service from psycho killer Arya, but I fully loved it. +25.
  • Jon making Sansa temporary Queen in the North. +7.
  • Sansa – queen of my heart and now Queen in the North!!! +17.
  • Jon choking Littlefinger for perving over Sansa. +19. This would just be weird and patriarchal, but Littlefinger is an unholy cunt and Sansa has been horrifically abused by 60 per cent of the men who have ever touched her.
  • Nymeria staring down the woman who once possessed her in a delicious reversal of fortune. +13. Yes, she’s a wolf but she did not consent to being owned by a strangely aggressive child.
  • Euron had a big win. So, regrettably, +10.

​That means this week’s bad bitch is Olenna Tyrell, because who even comes close? This week’s loser is Cersei. But, as always, with the caveat that when Cersei is really losing – she strikes hard. Plus, Qyburn’s comment about the dragon skeletons under King’s Landing, “Curious that King Robert did not have them destroyed”, coupled with his previous penchant for re-animated dead bodies, makes me nervous, and worry that – in light of Cersei’s lack of heir – we’re moving towards a Cersei-Qyburn-White Walkers alliance. So do watch out.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.